Enabling consumers to analyze their food's DNA

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Pietro Cattaneo, Product Development Scientist at SwissDeCode, and Barbara Pfenn

Pietro Cattaneo, Product Development Scientist at SwissDeCode, and Barbara Pfenniger, the head of the food department of the Fédération Romande des Consommateurs © Alain Herzog / 2019 EPFL

EPFL’s Digital Epidemiology Lab held its first food DNA sequencing workshop last Saturday, in association with SwissDeCode and Hackuarium. The workshop - made possible thanks to the support of the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation - marks an important step forward for the Open Food Repo DNA citizen-science initiative.

Getting food from the farm to our plate involves complicated supply chains. Agricultural products are frequently processed in several stages and shipped through one or more countries. No surprise, then, that today’s consumers are looking more closely at what’s really in their food - especially given the numerous scandals that have come to light, such as the one in 2013 where food producers were caught substituting horse meat for beef.

To address this problem, scientists at EPFL’s Digital Epidemiology Lab launched the Open Food Repo DNA initiative to develop a system that would enable consumers to sequence the DNA in processed foods and identify every single ingredient. The initiative will entail adding DNA data to the Open Food Repo , an open-source repository of nutritional information on 45,000 bar-coded food products in Switzerland. The Open Food Repo was also created by the Digital Epidemiology Lab.

Recipes for gene sequencing

All organisms - from onions to human beings - are built from DNA. These are the molecules that contain the information necessary for organisms to live and grow. DNA sequencing is the process of determining the sequence of this genetic information so that it can be analyzed and interpreted. However, DNA sequencing is very expensive and requires specialized people and equipment.

Sequencing the DNA in food was something that, until recently, could be done only by university researchers and certain high-tech companies. But modern advancements in sequencing technology have made it both technically and financially feasible for smaller organizations like community laboratories. That’s where the Open Food Repo DNA initiative comes in: since last fall, scientists have been working on a new method that spells out DNA sequencing instructions like the steps in a recipe, employing techniques like high-throughput sequencing and DNA barcoding - which is the process of examining just a small section of an organism’s DNA. Capable of being read like a barcode, these sections are similar enough across all organisms to be easily extracted from an entire DNA chain, yet different enough that they can be used to identify individual plants and animals.

"The first step is to mix all the food ingredients together thoroughly with a mixer. Then we extract a section of DNA using specific chemical compounds at high temperatures," says Pietro Cattaneo, Product Development Scientist at SwissDeCode. The extracted DNA section is amplified to make numerous copies and then sequenced by converting the individual molecules into electric signals, which are translated into a DNA code.

Using citizen science to get better information about our food

As a citizen-science initiative, Open Food Repo DNA aims to allow consumers to one day analyze the food they buy and determine precisely what it contains. A group of consumers tested the system at a workshop held in the Hackuarium community laboratory last Saturday, 4 May. Participants included both scientists and open-science advocates, and they spent the day extracting and amplifying the DNA from food products ranging from paprika-flavored potato chips and tuna sandwiches to falafel and pesto sauce. The food’s DNA sequences will be sent to the participants in the upcoming days.

"A growing number of products in supermarkets today are processed, and consumers want to know exactly what they’re eating. What’s great about this initiative is that it will empower people to analyze their food themselves," says Barbara Pfenniger, the head of the food department of the Fédération Romande des Consommateurs (a consumer watchdog group for French-speaking Switzerland), who participated in the workshop. "Open-science projects also have a snowball effect - the more participants they have, the more people get interested in them. And in this case, we are encouraging people to look more critically at the food everyone eats."

At the end of the workshop, participants discussed the system’s advantages and how it could be improved. "We plan to hold more workshops at the Hackuarium in order to test and improve our system, and make it easier to use. Then we will roll out the workshops at other community labs in Switzerland and abroad," says Talia Salzmann, who is heading up the initiative at the Digital Epidemiology Lab.

By making it possible for consumers to perform genetic analyses of the food sold in Switzerland, the project team hopes to foster dialogue on how new technology can be leveraged to help people eat healthier, improve transparency in the food industry, and make a positive contribution to the health of our society as a whole.

Project external partners

SwissDeCode is a company that develops solutions for authenticity and food safety certification (Open Food Repo DNA protocol development).
Hackuarium is a community and citizen laboratory that allows everyone to explore new ways to imagine and design research and innovation (the place where the workshop was held).
The Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation is a Swiss public-service organization that promotes better health through good nutrition. It provided funding for this project.